The 'Human Tiger' Jacob Oppenheimer

The ‘Human Tiger’ Jacob Oppenheimer

“The sooner I can cash in my chips, the better, as it will save me a lot of trouble and unhappiness.”

-Jacob Oppenheimer after being condemned to death.

Just like tigers are predatory animals, constantly pacing their zoo enclosures and capable of horrific violence in a split-second, so was Jake Oppenheimer. From 1892 until his execution at Folsom Prison in 1913, Oppenheimer’s life was a never-ending saga of violence and rebellion, as though he’d declared a one-man war on society and its institutions.

His reputation for brutality grew to the extent that the California legislature passed Section 4500 and added it to the California Penal Code, purely for Oppenheimer and, later, inmates like him. Under Section 4500 any prisoner serving a life sentence who assaulted another inmate or a guard was now committing a capital crime. Oppenheimer would be the only one of Folsom’s 93 executed inmates to die for assault and one of very few in the entire State of California. The law lasted decades longer than Oppenheimer himself and was used sparingly but, as we shall see, its very existence was down to California’s ‘Human Tiger.’ Which, incidentally, was a nickname Oppenheimer himself hated.

As former Folsom warden James Johnston (later to become the first Warden at Alcatraz) put it:

“He made many murderous attacks on prison officers and fellow inmates. His killings and assaults terrorized. His keepers were puzzled he had demonstrated uncanny ability to improvise weapons and get at his victims despite confinement, surveillance and restraint.”

And yet, despite his penchant for assault and murder, he was also a highly intelligent, reflective and intellectual man. His writings while under sentence of death such as ‘Thoughts of a Condemned Man’ are interesting reading and indicate considerable brain-power and capacity for rational thought. It was rare at the time, long before Carl Panzram, Caryl Chessman and Mumia Abu-Jamal, for inmates of any stripe to write much, although some of literature’s best efforts were produced by people serving time. Dostoyevsky being one of them.

So, with all that in mind, let’s go back to the year 1892 and where the ‘Human Tiger’ started earning his stripes.

Oppenheimer drew his first prison sentence in 1892 for shooting his work supervisor. A work colleague at the messenger firm employing him had made a crude remark about the cashier, who also happened to be the supervisor’s sister. The cashier, blaming Oppenheimer, complained to her brother and, when Oppenheimer refused to apologize, fired him. On checking his final paycheck Oppenheimer noticed some deductions. Acquiring a revolver, he confronted his former boss and fired three shots, slightly wounding him and earning 18 months in the House of Corrections in the process.

On his release Oppenheimer started doing small-time robberies with two sets of brothers, John and Berry Holland and Charles and Walter Ross. Ironically, it was when the Holland brothers were arrested for a drugstore robbery in which Oppenheimer had declined to participate that disaster beckoned. John Holland copped a reduced sentence in return for naming Oppenheimer and, while Holland drew 35 years for a robbery he had committed, Oppenheimer drew fifty for a crime he didn’t commit.

Folsom, one of America's most feared prisons.

Folsom, one of America’s most feared prisons.

It probably didn’t help that both men were sent to Folsom Prison, an  institution as terrifying then as it is today. Holland spent his time watching his back while Oppenheimer looked for ways to stick a shank in it. On September 29, Holland unwittingly gifted Oppenheimer the chance.

Tired of constantly watching his back, Holland tried to shank Oppenheimer in the prison yard and Oppenheimer, himself carrying a shank, stabbed him repeatedly until he died. Oppenheimer went to Folsom’s dreaded solitary confinement cells, while Holland went to the prison morgue. At his trial the jury, considering that Holland had started the fight, showed mercy and voted for a life sentence on top of Oppenheimer’s existing 50 years. He was shipped to San Quentin immediately.

In May of 1899, Oppenheimer was working in San Quentin’s hated jute mill where he repeatedly stabbed Guard James McDonald, who was lucky enough to have survived the attack. It was then that a journalist gave him the nickname he hated. No longer was he merely Inmate Oppenheimer. He was now the ‘Human Tiger.’ Again the jury, unusually for attempting to murder a guard, showed mercy. He drew another life sentence. He also caused the addition of Section 4500 to the California Penal Code. The ‘Human Tiger had got off to a roaring start.

Oppenheimer was cruelly treated in solitary as was the custom at that time. He was hung by his wrists, endured long periods in a straitjacket (110 hours on one occasion) and exposed to quicklime fumes that burned his eyes. He was issued clean clothes only once every three weeks, given only two meals a day, 30 minutes indoor exercise daily and his cell was perpetually cold, always kept only a few degrees above freezing.

Even in solitary he continued to make trouble. He set fire to his mattress, later admitting that he did so in hopes of forcing the solitary inmates to be unlocked from their cells, giving them the opportunity to kill a guard. He devised his ‘tap code’ akin to Morse code to get around the ban on inmates talking in solitary. He obtained a file and was caught using it to cut through the metal roof of his solitary cell. In 1903 he threw black pepper in a guard’s eyes. He was violently subdued while trying to strangle another guard. He was also repeatedly punished. His books, magazines, mattress and blankets were confiscated and he was repeatedly chained to the wall of a darkened cell.

Oppenheimer then attempted another escape by using needles to chip away at the brittle iron bars of his cell. Fellow solitary inmate Jack O’Neill didn’t know what Oppenheimer was doing, but certainly told the guards that something was amiss. The guards didn’t discover the damaged bars, but they did start moving him randomly from cell to cell. Which might have worked until, in April 1907, he was back in the cell with the still-undiscovered weakened bars. And an undiminished desire for revenge on Jack O’Neill.

Nine months later the bars were forced aside and Oppenheimer headed for the kitchen to pick up a knife. Vengeance would be his. At least until trusty inmate John Wilson saw him go for a knife and grappled with, knowing it was intended for O’Neill. Other inmates and guards, alerted by the struggle helped restrain Oppenheimer.

Now Section 4500 came into play. Oppenheimer was facing Folsom’s gallows not for a killing, but for assault. At initial hearings Oppenheimer defended himself, doing so with unusual eloquence and ability. He blamed the years of solitary and harsh treatment that he claimed had brutalized him. The prosecution countered with his previous record, citing it as proof that he was a brute already. They also used his writings to prove that he was legally sane and so fit to be tried, condemned and hanged. He was convicted in October 1907, a death sentence was passed.

The gallows at Folsom Prison, replaced by San Quentin's gas chamber in 1937.

The gallows at Folsom Prison, replaced by San Quentin’s gas chamber in 1937.

Oppenheimer’s new pro-bono lawyer, Gus Ringolsky, appealed. The appeal was denied in January 1909. Oppenheimer’s execution was scheduled for February. In February his execution was stayed by US Supreme Court Justice Warren H Beatty to allow Ringolsky time for another appeal. Oppenheimer then sealed his own fate in grisly fashion.

While in Folsom’s ‘Condemned Cells’ Oppenheimer used his ‘tap code’ to arrange an escape attempt with two other condemned inmates. The attempt failed. Accomplice Francisco Quijada blamed Oppenheimer and assaulted him. Oppenheimer responded by fatally stabbing Quijada through the heart with a length of wire.

Not surprisingly, the US Supreme Court denied his appeal. In June of 1913 his last hope vanished when the State Governor declined to intervene. The execution date was set for July 12.

On the day itself Oppenheimer walked firmly from his cell to the gallows at the end of his tier of cells. There was no hope of any final stay or reprieve. Society was done with Oppenheimer and, according to his last words, he was done with society:

“You know, this is no punishment for me. This is nothin’. I have suffered a thousand deaths in the prisons. This is just nothin’.”

With that he mounted the scaffold, steadily climbing the 13 steps toward the hangman. He took a large swig from a flask of whisky, the hangman positioned the noose and then he was gone.

The ‘Human Tiger’ would roar no more.